In his book Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies, Kevin B. Anderson clearly demonstrates that Marx did not embrace a unilinear, economic determinist position on historical development. Rather, especially in his later writings, he demonstrated a nuanced understanding of multilinear development including the possibility of transformation to communism without going first through a capitalist stage of development. In this blog post, I will engage with this highly important contribution to Marxist scholarship.
Historical Materialist scholarship is often dismissed for ‘economism’, the idea that Marxist explanations would inevitably proceed along unilinear, determinist lines of explanation based on economic developments. As Richard Ashley (1983) has shown, the taboo of ‘economism’ is often levelled against a straw Marxism as a disciplinary discourse or boundary in order to prevent engagement with Marx’s work in the first place. Hence, it is of utmost importance to demonstrate that not only is Marxism not necessarily determinist, but that actually Marx himself had adopted a non-determinist, multilinear understanding of historical development. It is precisely this task, which is performed by Anderson in his book.
It is correct, as Anderson acknowledges, that Marx in his earlier writings and here especially the Communist Manifesto (1848) and his work on India in 1853 argued that all societies have to go through the same stages of development. Hence, he gave, for example, qualified support for colonialism and its apparent progressive impact on India. ‘Britain destroyed the traditional Indian economy and social structure mainly “by the working of English steam and English free Trade”, which displaced the traditional textile industry and “inundated the very mother country of cotton with cottons”. The British have “thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia”’ (p. 15). Nevertheless, as Anderson demonstrates in a detailed analysis of Marx’s subsequent writings, this position was fully revised in his study of, and writings on, non-Western societies, demonstrating an impressive openness towards including analyses of race, ethnicity, nationality and gender into his critique of capitalism.
For example, Marx developed a nuanced understanding of the internal relations between race and class in his work on the Civil War in the USA during the 1860s. ‘First, he held that white racism had held back labour as a whole. Second, he wrote of the subjectivity of the enslaved Black labouring class as a decisive force in the war’s favourable outcome in the North. Third, he noted – as an example of the finest internationalism – British labour’s unstinting support for the North, despite the harsh economic suffering the Northern blockade on Southern cotton had unleashed on Manchester and other industrial centers’ (p. 239). Equally important was Marx’s conceptualisation of the internal relations between nationalism and class in his assessment of Irish nationalism and the way cheap Irish labour had become integrated into British capitalism as a reserve labour pool (p. 124).
Most significantly, perhaps, is Marx’s later work on Russia and here the potential of the communes to form the nucleus of communist transformation without having to go through the stage of capitalist development. Thus, ‘he was arguing that a modern communist transformation was possible in an agrarian, technologically backward land like Russia, if it could ally itself with a revolution on the part of the Western working classes, and thus gain access on a cooperative basis to the fruits of Western modernity’ (p. 236). This clearly demonstrates Marx’s openness to multilinear historical development and indicates awareness of the importance of local specificity for historical analysis.
In asserting that Marx was not driven by economic determinism, Anderson makes a major contribution to historical materialist research. For Marxists, it is comforting to know that Marx himself was always aware of the importance of multilinear development and the internally related, but still distinctive role, played by ethnicity, class, nationality and gender in resistance against capitalist exploitation.
And yet, we must be careful here. Neither Marx’s writings nor their discussion by Anderson offer a blueprint, a fully developed theory with which to analyse capitalist development today in a non-determinist, non-Eurocentric way. While Marx provided a clear set of concepts to analyse capitalist accumulation in Capital, Vol.1, his work on non-Western societies is mainly confined to reflections in extensive notebooks. It remains the task of today’s historical materialists to think in a Marxian way and develop our own conceptual toolkit for a multilinear analysis of capitalist exploitation and resistance.
This post first appeared on Trade Unions and Global Restructuring
Chris Araujo | Sep 18 2121
I’m sorry Professor, but I have to disagree.
Observing that the British Empire produced the “only social revolution” (by which Marx means something very specific as you know, i.e., a transition from one mode of production to the next) is not even a “qualified” kind of “support for colonialism” in India.
If we adopted that interpretative framework, we’d have to argue that Marx– history’s greatest critic of capitalism— endorsed it with a “qualified support” as well. Sure, Marx recognized that this negativity produced something positive in the long-run of history because, when sublated by a higher form of society, the fruit of these developments could be harvested and enjoyed by a free association of individuals…but is that “support” for capitalism? Marx didn’t champion nations traversing through the capitalist stage of production because, although that stage is a world-historical necessity, he didn’t think it was necessary for every nation to go through its tortures. Put simply, once the social revolution is victorious in the advanced industrial world, Marx didn’t assume the poor peasants elsewhere would have to go through all of those same stages of social development that Western Europe had already passed through.
And while Anderson is right that Marx, as you put it, recognized the “possibility of transformation to communism without going first through a capitalist stage of development,” he only extended that possibility to Russia for several very specific reasons, whereas Anderson mistakenly (even after being corrected) suggests that Marx likely meant to extend that possibility to other nations. But Marx didn’t do that for three reasons: (1) those communal forms had already been destroyed by colonialism (whereas Russia hadn’t been colonized), (2) Russia’s proximity to western Europe meant it could appropriate the positive fruits of capitalist production without passing through its Caudine forks & could be supported by the workers’ revolution there, and (3) Russia’s commune system was actually a highly developed form of the “archaic” commune and wasn’t the one universally found at the dawn of the history of all societies (its “dualism” and development of private property distinguished it from India, Indonesia, etc. and gave it historical vigor.